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Black Tom: Terror on the Hudson

Black Tom: Terror on the Hudson

by Ron Semple


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A tale of sabotage, subterfuge and political shenanigans set in that colorful, raucous place that was Jersey City in 1916 when America is on the cusp of war and the fate of a president and the nation might hinge on the decision a young policeman is forced to make.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781785351105
Publisher: Top Hat Books
Publication date: 10/30/2015
Pages: 514
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

A longtime newspaperman who rose from cub reporter to publisher, Ron Semple is a fifth-generation Jersey City native. Semple was educated by the Jesuits. He is a former Marine, a retired Coast Guard auxiliarist, and a retired firefighter and paramedic. Semple spent the past ten years as a FEMA reservist deployed to a half-dozen hurricanes. He is married and has two grown daughters, a foster son and two grandchildren.

Read an Excerpt

Black Tom: Terror on the Hudson

By Ron Semple

John Hunt Publishing Ltd.

Copyright © 2014 Ron Semple
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-78535-111-2


The All Highest

The "All Highest," Kaiser Wilhelm II, the German Emperor, King of Prussia and Supreme Warlord, was inspecting himself in a full length mirror. He liked what he saw. From his brilliantly polished cavalry boots, to his gilded sword, to the blaze of decorations on his chest, to the top of his spiked helmet, he looked the epitome of a Prussian warrior.

He particularly liked the bayonet tips of his upturned martial moustache, kept perfect by the daily visits of a highly skilled barber.

His eyes lingered on his crooked and withered left arm, mangled at birth, the hand resting atop a dagger. The foreshortened sleeve was perfected tailored.

No one will notice, thought the Kaiser. He was wrong. Everyone noticed, no one looked.

The All Highest was in a particularly good mood. The old man, Otto Von Bismarck, was gone and he, the All Highest ordained by God to lead Germany to greatness, was free to do just that. The first piece of complicated nonsense negotiated by the so-called Iron Chancellor to go was that ridiculous secret treaty with Russia. The Kaiser let it lapse.

Let Cousin Nicky take care of himself, the Kaiser thought at the time. The Czar did. His government negotiated a mutual aid treaty with France, something Bismarck had considered imperative to prevent. From such small things, catastrophes can spring.

The Kaiser turned and looked in the mirror again. There was a bare spot on his chest that could use a decoration. Maybe his grandmother, Queen Victoria, would give him one.

His mother, Victoria's daughter, was so English that when she died she was buried wrapped only in a Union Jack. Her son considered Great Britain his potential enemy.

Unlike his late, courageous yet peace loving father, none of Wilhelm II's medals were for combat.

While the Kaiser was admiring himself, a book that would influence the fate of nations in two World Wars was being published in America in 1890. It was "The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660-1783" written by Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan. Stripped down to its essentials, Mahan argued that whichever naval power that controlled the sea lanes would dominate the world. He, in essence, urged the United States to revive its Manifest Destiny by expanding overseas. That meant American defensive bases and coaling stations in the Caribbean and the Pacific as well as the acquisition of Hawaii. In a decade, this would be so.

When Mahan was head of the Naval War College, he struck up a friendship with the assistant secretary of the navy, Theodore Roosevelt, who later, as president, would implement many of Mahan's ideas.

American industry and agriculture were already the most productive in the world. Exports, which would benefit from Mahon's brand of protection, included one-fourth of its crops and half of the petroleum America produced.

Mahan's influence on foreign navies was extreme. The Kaiser ordered that copies of his book be placed in the ward rooms of all of his ships. The Japanese studied Mahan assiduously and ultimately were defeated by an equally informed but more powerful Navy — ours. Even the British admired Mahan probably because they had perfected the naval practices his doctrines were based on.

Captain Mahan, unquestionably the most prominent naval strategist of his time, was not much of a seaman. Ships under his command often seemed to run into things they should have avoided. The Navy prudently kept him ashore during most of his career.

His book set the stage of America's emergence as a world leader and ultimately a superpower which frequently has had the unwelcome role of policing the world thrust upon her.

Mahan's theories would have a direct effect on a knob-shaped protrusion on the Jersey City waterfront called Black Tom.

Millions of immigrants arrived at the Port of New York before and after the Statue of Liberty was opened in 1886 to greet them. Many of them — Irish, German, Italian, Jewish, Russians, Slavs and others — never moved inland more than a few miles away, if that, from her golden lamp. There they lived, worked and died in the shadow of her promise. Some forswore the old country, others did not.

Such was Jersey City, an improbable place for this improbable story. It is a story that intertwines the daily lives of the ordinary and extraordinary people of this otherwise forgettable place with war, militarism, America's rise to power, sabotage, railroads, greed, politics, profits, nationalism, intrigue, assimilation and a search for really good tomato sauce.

Black Tom was to be part of a worldwide cataclysm that would kill millions and would affect all of us to this very day more than a century later. Yet the few who knew or suspected what actually happened at Black Tom said nothing at the time.



Do You Renounce Satan?

Amelia McGurk shouldn't have been in church. It wasn't done. Not here in Jersey City. The mother should be at home getting ready for the party with her husband while the godparents took the baby to be baptized.

But Amelia couldn't resist. She slipped into the back of St. Michael's and watched as the monsignor went through the ancient ritual of cleansing her baby of original sin. Not that she understood a word of the Latin that echoed through the church, empty save for a few pews up front crowded with family and friends. Amelia was in the back with the handful of ubiquitous old biddies.

All she knew was that her baby, her Michael — named for her brother as well as the archangel — was now safe from the grasp of the devil. Of course, Amelia's friends would have argued that it would have been Satan who would have been in jeopardy had he made his presence known. Amelia was celebrated for her quick temper in a neighborhood where common brawling was unremarkable.

Baby Michael howled when the monsignor poured cold water over his head and baptized him: "In nomine Patris, et Filii et Spiritus Sancti."

Amelia all but grabbed the infant from his godmother's arms at the front door of the church.

The monsignor couldn't help but see her. He ignored the breach of local protocol.

"That's a fine boy you have there, Amelia, God love him," he said.

"Thank you, Monsignor," answered Amelia. "He's a gift from God that's going straight back to him. Michael will be a priest just like you, Monsignor. Mark my words."

"Now, Amelia," said the monsignor with more patience than he felt, "the priesthood is a vocation. Either God calls you to it or he doesn't."

"Don't worry, Monsignor. Michael will be called. I'll see to that."

Michael, infant and boy, lived on Cork Row in the Horseshoe, the 2 Ward at turn of the 20 century Jersey City. He was surrounded by his own kind: Irish Catholics.

The Republican legislature of New Jersey created the Horseshoe in an attempt to cram all the Democrats possible into one legislative assembly district and thus limit their political influence. On a map it looked like an upside down U — a horseshoe. It looped around the vast property of the railroads which dominated the Jersey City waterfront.

The limitless flow of immigrants, Germans and Irish first and then Italians, Slavs and others, would not cease until the newcomers overwhelmed those who came before until Republicans — except in presidential years — would be hard to find in Jersey City. The Horseshoe became and remained the heart of the Democratic Party.

The Horseshoe was a place of railroad tracks and trestles, docks, piers, cobblestone streets, gas lights, horses, wagons, dirt, noise, streetcars, trucks, motor cars, Catholic churches and forty saloons.

It was a place of poverty and privation. But it was home to thousands of Irish immigrants and their children who crowded into its wooden and brick tenements and its shanties. Kneaded by their brogues, that name "The Horseshoe" was slurred to "The 'Show." Elsewhere in Jersey City it was still called The Horseshoe.

The men worked for the railroads, on the river, on the waterfront or in any factory where there was not a sign that read, "Catholics Need Not Apply." Their women grew old much too swiftly caring for their large families in conditions that would make a serf weep.

It was squalid and disease was a constant. Especially feared was tuberculosis. Sure it would kill you in the end but the real threat was that the health authorities would come and ship you off to a sanitarium. Take you from all you knew and loved.

Children grew up on the streets in the 'Show. Their flats were too dark and dreary. The streets were exciting and inviting. Mickey was a happy child and a tough one.

You learned to fight in the 'Show immediately after you learned to walk. It was either fight or flight and small children can't run very fast. It was better to stand and fight. With luck, an adult — almost always a woman — would intervene if you were taking too much of a beating.

If the streets were dangerous, it was more because of the traffic and the railroad tracks spearing through the place rather than boys dukeing it out.

If your family lived in a cold-water flat, you had to heat it yourself. If you were lucky, you heated with coal. Coal was free, at least to most people in the 'Show. That's not the way the coal owners in Pennsylvania planned it, but that is the way it worked.

Coal bound for the great city of New York entered Jersey City from the west — "back of the hill." From that moment until the coal cars entered the safety of the yards on the waterfront, boys of all ages and sizes swarmed all over them with burlap sacks pilfering coal.

All of them promised their mothers never to jump on a moving coal car. They were only to pick up coal which had fallen onto the rail bed. None of them kept that promise. More than a few of them ended up crippled or dead under the wheels of a coal car.

The railroad police worked hard to keep the thievery down. But if they caught you, all you got was a nightstick across the back of your legs. All you had to do to escape more punishment was to run away. No railroad dick was going to jump off and chase you down the street. Not in Jersey City. Certainly not in the 'Show. The railroad bulls weren't suicidal.

No one had ever heard a sermon that held it was a sin to steal coal from a Pennsylvania robber baron. The souls of the "Molly McGuires," long since hanged in the coal fields, could be heard chortling in the laughter of the kids mocking the railroad police.

Thus it was that the baby Michael became the boy Mickey on Cork Row in the Horseshoe. Mickey's father was dead — crushed between two boxcars. The Erie railroad gave Amelia McGurk $200 to compensate her for her loss.

Most of the kids in Mickey McGurk's neighborhood spent more time than they wanted to in church. Mickey didn't feel that way. He assumed he was to be a priest. Everyone assumed that. Amelia McGurk, mother of five, made sure that they knew that her youngest was destined for the cloth.

In time, Mickey became an altar boy at Saint Michael's which wasn't as easy as it sounds. You had to memorize all the Latin responses to the priest's prayers during the Mass. You had to learn the choreography of the Mass. When did you take the missal from the epistle to the gospel side of the altar, when did you ring the bells? You had to ferret out all the little idiosyncrasies of the pastor and his three curates. Which one wanted a drop of wine, which one a chalice full.

The priests were not patient with stumbling altar boys.

"Don't you know what an honor it is to be an acolyte? It is a minor order. It leads directly to the sub-deaconate, the deaconate and then the priesthood. Do it right, you numbskull."

Mickey rarely had to be told twice. He was an acolyte. He was on his way to the priesthood.

He even took a swig of the sacramental wine with the other boys when the priest was not in the sacristy. Just to see how it tasted, mind you. It was awful. Cloyingly sweet. Sickeningly sweet.

But Mickey thought that was just another sacrifice priests must make for the privilege of turning ordinary bread and wine into the body and blood of the Savior.

He was an altar boy when his neighbor, Frank Hague, married Jennie Warner. Frank was a well-respected man on 9 Street. He was the Democratic precinct leader and he had a great job as a deputy sheriff for the county. Frank gave each altar boy a silver dollar before the ceremony. Never was there a more pious recitation of the Latin responses at a nuptial Mass.

Mickey was an altar boy when his older brother married the girl next door, Frank Hague's younger sister. Frank Hague was the fourth of the eight children his mother, Margaret, delivered on the kitchen table of her tenement flat.

It was Frank who gave him another silver dollar, this time after the ceremony and said to him, "I guess this makes me your Uncle Frank."

"You bet it does, Uncle Frank," answered Mickey McGurk who was considered one of the brightest lads in the parish.

Mickey was still an altar boy when his insistent mother managed to get him into St. Peter's College High School on a full scholarship which the Jesuits offered since they reckoned the family was penniless anyway. The Jesuits, impressed with his intelligence, thought of him as a possible candidate for their own ranks. The thought of Mickey as a Jesuit brought his mother close to swooning.

Mickey could see both Ellis Island and Bedloe Island from his 2 floor classroom window. Miss Liberty, as would be noted by many during the coming decades, had her back turned to Jersey City. A nearby third island, Black Tom, connected to Jersey City by a causeway, now had a long wharf, piers and warehouses serviced by many railroad tracks. It looks nothing like the uninhabited island it once was.

It is Black Tom that will have the most effect on Mickey — and so many more — in the not too distant future.

Mickey was still an altar boy and a third year student at St. Peter's that summer night in Van Vorst Park on Jersey Avenue when his best friend, Jimmie Cribbins, introduced him to Marge the Barge.

Mickey, who had four sisters and lived in a crowded flat, needed no anatomy lessons. But he had no idea just how soft and warm female flesh could be even when it came in a package that outweighed you by ten or twenty pounds.

Still less could Mickey imagine exactly how it would feel when the generous Marge let him go all the way like the small squad of neighborhood boys that preceded him.

Jimmy spent the rest of the long evening trying to persuade Mickey that he was not desperately in love and that he didn't have to marry Marge.

The priesthood was another matter.

The confrontation came during his retreat at Manressa House on Staten Island. It took two ferryboat voyages to get there since they were still digging the Tubes, a subway tunnel that would link Jersey City to Manhattan.

Most of his classmates had finished their retreat and were going home in the morning after a week of total silence, sermons and meditation. Several were asked to stay for another week. Mickey realized that all who were to remain were probably seminary bound. He panicked and asked to see the priest from St. Peter's who had accompanied them to Manressa.

"What's this all about, Mickey?"

"I can't stay for the second week, Father. I've got that job delivering groceries after school. I give the money to my Mother. We need the money, you know."

The Jesuit stared at Mickey for a second and then said softly, "Mickey. Do I look like an idiot? Stop tap dancing. What is this all about?"

The boy almost cried. He took a deep breath and blurted it out. "I can't be a priest, Father. I just can't."

"Why not?"

"I just can't. That's all."

"That's most certainly not all," said the Jesuit. "What's her name?"

Mickey was stunned. "What do you mean?"

"You know what I mean. What's her name?"

"I can't tell you that, Father."

"You can and will. What ... is ... her ... name?"

Tears flowed now but Mickey was not sobbing. "Marge O'Brian," he whispered.


Excerpted from Black Tom: Terror on the Hudson by Ron Semple. Copyright © 2014 Ron Semple. Excerpted by permission of John Hunt Publishing Ltd..
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